Thursday, September 04, 2014

"Lovecraftian style"

Today, I'm going to "punt" and quote myself from an online discussion.  Of a while ago, sure.  But thematically on topic for this blog, nonetheless.
Originally Posted by pemerton 
I agree with this. I actually think even core D&D sometimes has problems in respect of scale - for instance, many D&D worlds involve maps done on the scale of actual Earth geography. But classic fantasy stories, even ones with mythic or legendary overtones, often do not require a large geographic area, or at least not an area that exists in any sort of actual detail (there can be journeying for many days and nights, but there is no actual concrete reality to those lands journeyed through).
I've been tinkering with a setting for years. Although I sketched out in very vague terms a global geography, I've really only detailed an area about the size and scope of the circum-Mediterranean. There's enough variety and geography there to keep me busy indefinitely.
 Originally Posted by pemertonThis also brings up another difficulty in my personal ability to really be moved by Lovecraft - I don't understand the aesthetics of asserting the impersonality and inhumanity (or perhaps non-humanity) of the cosmos, but then personifying it via all these beings who are in many cases quite anthropomorphic. I think you are right about Odin and Thor, but I think any personification in an anthropomorphic fashion produces that sort of outcome, if only by confining the sphere of perception and the sphere of causal influence. (In other words, for me Cthulhu can have the same problem Odin and Thor have, whom I agree with you are at odds with the Lovecraftian project.)
Well, keep in mind that the so-called "cosmic horror" being strongly attached to Lovecraft was a posthumous development; a work of interpretation by his fans and later scholars. Clearly Lovecraft himself didn't continuously and consistently use it. Although there are common threads through most of his stories, even then he used those same threads to weave all kinds of themes and tones, including Dunsanian fantasy, ("The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath", for instance), more traditional horror/witchcraft stories ("The Haunter in the Dark" and its sequels, "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," even "The Dunwich Horror," etc.), localized monster stories ("The Shadow Over Innsmouth", "The Colour Out of Space." etc.) and straight up science fiction with only a thin veneer of horror ("At The Mountains of Madness", etc.)

And in most cases, Lovecraft was writing openly imitative works--"Kadath" can almost be considered a pastiche of Vathek, "The Dunwich Horror" can almost be considered a pastiche of "The Great God Pan," etc. So while the notion of cosmic horror crystallized under Lovecraft's watch, and he's rightly given credit for clearly articulating the notion first, not every story that has a mi-go, a Deep One, a vague reference to The Necronomicon, Cthulhu, or the Plateau of Leng is a story of cosmic horror. This is clearly true for even the body of work of Lovecraft himself, and as @fireinthedust pointed out, once you step into fellow writers of the Mythos circle, that is true even more strongly.
 Originally Posted by pemertonFrom memory, this is more-or-less how the option is presented in the "play this with D&D" notes for d20 CoC.

More or less, but the d20 CoC book strongly buys into the concept of the cosmic horror and bleakness side of Lovecraft's writings, and de-emphasizes (or even completely ignores) the many other times when Lovecraft referred to "Yog-Sothothery" as little more than a somewhat whimsical in-joke and reference tagging between him and his friends in the Weird Tales writers circuit. That gives the book a much better sense of thematic unity, and I'm sure it would have been a mistake to do otherwise, but at the same time, it kinda misses the point that to Lovecraft and his friends would have been much more obvious.
Originally Posted by pemerton Of that circle of writers, the only two whose works I know are Lovecraft and REH.
Which, sadly, I don't think are the best writers in the group. Although they are often more remembered because they articulated philosophies, which are often seen as as memorable as their stories. REH actually wrote a whole series of stories that were even more overtly Lovecraftian than his Conan stories (although for some reason, "The Black Stone" is the only one who's title I can think of off the top of my head.) Some writers like Henry Kuttner, E. Hoffmann Price, Frank Belknap Long or especially Robert Bloch went on to bigger and better things after they stopped dabbling in Lovecraftian style horror. August Derleth is nothing but derivative, although he added a number of new elements to the tone of the ouvre.

But the best writer of the group is almost certainly Clark Ashton Smith. He was already a successful and widely renowned poet before the market for his poetry kind of dried up and he turned to pulps to pay the bills. But he could write circles around Lovecraft or REH, easily. 

And he should be familiar to old-timey D&D players, since some of his work was specifically pastiched (if that's a verb) in the X2 - Castle Amber module.
Originally Posted by pemertonThere is the same idea of "a new dark age", a de-intellectualisation, as the way of coping with the knowledge that modernity brings.

Which you could arguably say has happened, although I think it's more fair to say that as our total knowledge base as humanity continues to grow, it just grows beyond the ability of any single person to really follow in all fields very well.

Although the notion that our knowledge of the scope of the cosmos will cause us to retreat in fear to anti-intellectualism seems... quaint, at best.
Originally Posted by pemertonI don't see REH as denying the bleakness so much as putting forward a different response, closer in some ways I think to Bertrand Russell's (and also, I would say moreso, Nietzsche's): that while the cosmos itself is valueless and empty, human self-creation - including moral self-creation - is a self-generating source of value. (I think there are also hints of vitalism in REH - down to his obsession with thews and sinews - so this moral self-creation is seen as part and parcel of the being of living creatures. This is another similarity to Nietzsche.)

Here, I'm talking more about tone than theme. I'd agree that Lovecraftian themes are frequent in Conan stories, but the tone of the stories is totally different, which was really my point in bringing them up in the first place. Fighting Cthulhu as high level D&D characters isn't inherently anti-Lovecraftian, because the themes can certainly be there, if the monsters are. I've also argued that fighting them isn't necessarily anti-Lovecraftian in tone either, but it certainly isn't if you look at REH's Mythos stories, for example. As you say; that's exactly what REH's characters do to them!
 Originally Posted by pemertonIn the first page or two of CoC, Lovecraft makes a passing reference to the vagaries of futurism and cubism. I think that the "cosmic horror/fantasy" of both Lovecraft and REH really is another expression of those sorts of modernist sensibilities that had been building up in the latter part of the nineteenth century but really peaked between the wars. @Celebrim has suggested that I have a failure of imagination, and that may be so: intellectually I can understand what was going on, but I find it hard to be correspondingly shocked or otherwise moved.

Then I don't see how that could be a failure of imagination. I can imagine Lovecraft's point of view. I can understand it. But that doesn't I mean I don't think it's a load of rubbish. Being frightened of non-Euclidean geometry is complete rubbish, unless someone were to put some problems in front of me and demand that I show that I remember how to solve them. If anything, the scope of the cosmos as we now understand it is so much vaster and more complex than even Lovecraft could possibly have imagined.

In fact, it's not too out there to say that the notion of being afraid of the true knowledge of the cosmos is a highly traditionalist, and even unimaginitive point of view--the inability to imagine grappling with knowledge that now, after nearly a century of rapid scientific discovery, seems so routine.

Although that's not really fair to him, because it's much easier to say that with the benefit of decades of hindsight.
 Originally Posted by fireinthedustActually, what I was pointing out is that there are elements of Mythos horror in the fantasy writing of other creators. Howards stories have heroes in them. He doesn't do the frightened, frail intellectual that Lovecraft writes: he did a story for Lovecraft with such a character, but he was the companion of a cowboy-type who save the day.

Right; didn't mean to inadvertenty seem to mischaracterize you. Rather, I meant that there are different approaches in tone to dealing with the Lovecraftian. Even within Lovecraft's own body of work. Once you add to that the other authors in the ouvre, you get significant differences. The approach of a character of REH's or Brian Lumley to a Lovecraftian monster is going to be very different than some fictional tweedy New England intellectual.
 Originally Posted by fireinthedustKeep in mind we're talking post-world war 1 fiction. What you folks are getting at here is NOT the horror of the cosmos or quantum physics. It's the horror of TRAUMA: something happens that you don't have the language for.
This is the horror of shell shock, of being failed by the institutions and leaders that you trusted. That's what the mythos represent.

Considering that neither REH nor Lovecraft served in the military, nor lived in an area that was occupied or otherwise directly influenced by the war, I'd find that interpretation a bit sketchy. If they were utilizing the concept of trauma, it was the kind of everyday exposure to change that has happened to everyone who's ever lived at any point of time in our world, more or less.

One could argue that both of them were ill-equipped personally to deal with trauma, and therefore "everyday" trauma affected them more than most, I suppose (actually, that argument would be quite easy to make for both of them. They both greatly feared and loathed the notion of change, in many ways.) But that interpretation of their writing requires building speculation on assumptions on a foundation of speciousness. It sounds logical, but it's ultimately completely undemonstrateable.
 Originally Posted by fireinthedustGranted, Lovecraft believed that the savage was wrong, that civilization was man's natural state. Howard thought the opposite: barbarism = natural, civilization is corrupting. What Howard was really writing about was how his beautiful Texan wilderness was being taken over by these oil rigs and towns. The language he knew for life was being destroyed.
That's Trauma and that's the stuff of the Mythos.

Howard's approach to barbarism was more complicated than that, especially since the barbarians are probably best represented by exactly those rough and tumble oil field blue collar workers you're referencing. While the Picts are never presented as positive in any sense whatsoever, other barbarians such as the Cimmerians (obviously), the Aesir and the Vanir are portrayed as romanticized noble savages, not unlike the frequent 19th century romanticization of the Gauls, the Goths, and the other noble savages who brought down the corrupt and decadent Roman Empire. 

In any case, I think the trauma of the oil business coming to town is a way too simplistic interpretation of Howard's approach to the Mythos horror. Besides, the oil boom started when he was just an extremely young boy. It's unlikely that he even had any significant memories of a way of life prior to the oil boom. If he'd lived even five years later, he'd have seen the end of the oil boom, and then he might have been able to write about the completely different trauma of work and livelihood drying up for people all around him. But that's neither here nor there.

And I've been to Cross Plains and other areas around Abilene. It ain't no beautiful wilderness! Even back then, it was more empty ranchland and farmland than wilderness anyway.
 Originally Posted by pemerton @fireinthedust, I agree that the Great War is an important factor in the modernist outlook overall. For many, it kills romanticism dead. (Not all, obviously - eg Tolkien.)

Nor REH, for that matter. There's a strong element of romanticism inherent in Howard's work too--especially if you look beyond the Conan stories. Even Lovecraft wasn't immune to it.
 Originally Posted by pemertonNot to mention the death of the narrator's grand-uncle "after having been jostled by a nautical-looking negro".

That's a perfect example of the way in which Lovecraft's stories haven't necessarily aged well. While he thought that phrase might have been vaguely threatening or disquieting, "a nautical-looking negro" just makes me want to chuckle.

Lovecraft's philosophy might have been influential in its time, but I think it was more his approach to writing and his introduction of new themes that made him influential in literature. His philosophy is merely a window view into a very odd-sounding and short-lived approach to the world that can't possibly have much currency in a world in which secular humanism is relatively common--and which embraces almost the entirety of Lovecraft's philosophy without being afraid of it.

Rather, his approach to alien life as truly alien was a remarkable insight that has influenced horror and science fiction writers for decades (although it too has its predecessors like Arthur Machen or David Lindsay.) His approach of ancient secret histories of the world has been a lasting influence that has informed all kinds of work and can be seen as the foundation of stuff likeThe X-files and more. His influence was more about what he brought to the genre of horror writing in particular; taking it beyond the Gothic and into the modern, than it was about his philosophy.

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